The term ‘microaggression’ refers to an everyday indignity, whether intentional or unintentional, and could have to do with race, gender, background, or any other type of disadvantaged group. Microaggression in the workplace can have very serious effects on its victims and those around them, so it’s time to educate ourselves on how we can prevent this from happening.
When we look back 50 years or so, we can certainly say that things are getting better in terms of equality, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a long way to go.
What began as a predominantly racially charged notion can now spread to other minorities or disadvantaged types, and unfortunately it’s still predominant in the workplace. The effects of these indignities can be quite severe, so we need to work on stamping them out completely.
What makes microaggressions so unique is that they can be unintentional and so slight that people might not realize just how degrading and hurtful they are. Therefore, education is the key to prevention so that we can all be more aware of how what we do and say can be seriously affecting those around us.
When it comes to the workplace, in particular, it’s important to treat everyone as equals, but this isn’t always the case. Although there are serious rules and penalties in place for blatant racism, sexism, and the like, what about these microaggressions that seem to slip by unnoticed each day, by everyone other than the person they’re directed at?
What Is Microaggression?
According to the Wikipedia, microaggression is the causal degradation of any marginalized group. The term microaggression was first coined in 1970 by Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce as he witnessed the continual put down of African Americans by non-black Americans with brief and casual messages.
Although the idea first began as a note on racial degradation, we now know that microaggressions can be directed at any other disadvantaged group including the disabled or women. Rather than focusing on the blatantly obvious discrimination that occurs with racist words or actions, microaggressions are considered slight and casual, sometimes not even being perceived as discriminatory by anyone other than the victim of the insult.
Microaggression can be either deliberate or nondeliberate, but whatever the reason it’s a form of degradation that needs to stop. In the workplace especially, it’s common for most people to have experienced or witnessed at least a few instances of microaggressions occurring, and they can actually have devastating effects.
These acts of degradation are not overt like other forms of discrimination but they are no less helpful. As the person performing the microaggression sometimes might not be aware of how hurtful they are being, they can be easily rectified in the workplace by educating staff and showing some examples of what they might look or sound like.
Examples Of Microaggression At Work
One of the challenging things about microaggression is that it can occur without some people even realizing, but the effects will be felt in full force by whoever they are targeted at. A microaggression can be a slight, comment, put down, insult, or remark that has to do with a membership of a group, such as a certain gender or race. Here are some of the categories that they commonly fall into:
These are the most common form of microaggressions which can range from inadvertent to obvious.
- “You speak English well.” Directed at an American of a foreign background.
- “You don’t act like a black person.” Implying that all black people act a certain negative way.
- “What are you?” Trying to ask the question of their nationality but making them seem less than human.
- Grabbing your purse or moving seats as someone from race comes towards you.
- “Is that your natural hair?” Making people feel comfortable about their appearance.
Any microaggression based on the idea that a sex is less than or inferior to another.
- Labeling an assertive female co-worker as a ‘bitch’ but a male as a ‘go-getter’.
- Mistaking female physicians as nurses rather than doctors.
- “What she means to say is…” A male co-worker speaking for their female counterparts as if they weren’t intelligent enough.
- Whistles, catcalls, and any other instance where a woman’s body is seen as an object.
Sexual Orientation Microaggressions
These relate to any time someone is judged or degraded due to their sexual preference, whether it’s homosexual, bisexual, or otherwise.
- People using the term ‘gay’ to describe something negative (ie. a movie they didn’t like or song they heard).
- Relating a homosexual marriage to obscurity and stating that one day we’ll be able to marry our dogs, or another similar and incorrect comparison.
The Effects Of Microaggression At Work
Besides it being degrading and discriminatory to speak or act against someone in these ways, there are plenty of other effects of microaggressions that occur in the workplace. Here are some potential consequences of allowing this behavior to continue in a professional setting.
Loss Of Self-esteem
The biggest hit that microaggressions can take is to our self-esteem as the comments and actions are often designed to make someone feel less than. By marginalizing someone to fit into one group they lose their individual identity and may begin to question their own worth.
Loss To The US Workforce
Reports indicate that microaggressions and the negative outcomes that arise from them cost $450 billion a year in US workforce productivity. This includes time spent during the harassment, loss of worker’s productivity, and efforts made to reconcile the actions.
Lack Of Diversity In The Workplace
Studies have shown that microaggressions actually occur well before we reach the workplace, with many biases taking place in the recruitment stage. Reading through applicants and conducting interviews are both areas where they’re allowed to play out.
Feelings Of Depression And Anxiety
The victim of these actions can begin to develop feelings of anxiety about going to work and they can spill over into their personal lives. Someone may become depressed from feeling less than and develop serious mental health issues.
When we start allowing these microaggressions to slip past us, it makes room for other behaviors in the workplace to be okay. Although these might seem minor when compared to blatant and direct racism, they still have the power to hurt and can also encourage more discrimination to occur.
What You Can Do To Help
These small microaggressions can be easily stomped out by speaking to people about why their actions or words could be helpful and getting them to have some empathy about the situation. In some cases, people might not realize that what they’re doing is hurtful and so you need to gently show them the power of their actions.
Often with cases like this, we think that if we’re not the ones that are causing the problem then we have nothing to do with it. However, if you see something like this occurring in the workplace or anywhere else, it’s best to speak up and show your support for the victim of the comment or action, in a way that works to educate those who might be doing it.
The best approach is to target the behavior and not the person. Calling someone a misogynist or racist isn’t going to solve anything and may insult them when all you really wanted to do was put a stop to the ignorant behavior. Explain why it’s hurtful and how it made you feel, and you’re likely to get a much better response.
Education Can Prevent Microaggression
Microaggressions might sound like tiny things but they can be powerful, especially when they are allowed to carry on in the workplace. They can be damaging to someone’s self-esteem and their mental state, not to mention a pass for other people to continue on with discriminatory or degrading behavior.
The best thing for workplaces to do is to address the problems before they arise and educate staff on what could be hurtful or degrading to say. As many cases of microaggressions are done by people who are ignorant of what could be hurtful to someone, this education can be a great prevention from further instances. As we can see, it’s not just the victim who ends up getting hurt in these scenarios, and any smart business would realize how much productivity suffers when we allow discrimination to occur.